OUR MAN: ‘We Need to Communicate Like Insurgents.’

51470257_e1c8bb2ac8_o“What we need to do,” said the man in the blue jacket and the crisp white shirt, “is to communicate more like insurgents.”

An arresting comment to make, particularly  as the man in the jacket was HM Government’s Ambassador to Lebanon Tom Fletcher.

The comment was made – and a whole host of others – at the tail end of a fascinating two day event in Jordan hosted by the Foreign Office for their Middle East and North Africa comms staff.

A week later and it’s a comment that keeps rattling around.

We need to communicate more like insurgents. What does that mean?

It could mean a whole host of things. To nail the obvious, it’s not about communicating beheadings. To me, it’s more about having an overall framework to work in and allowing people on the ground to be flexible, creative and agile. What I took was that it was about being not hemmed in by procedure. It’s about creating sharable content that is going to be shared. It’s seeing what works in the field and replicating it.

Here’s a second arresting comment from the event that keeps re-occuring.

“Al-Qaida’s leaders view communications as 90 percent of the struggle.”

Think for a minute of that group and what do you see?

Ossama bin Laden in a fuzzy vhs video?

The Twin Towers?

Both are powerful images which frame the first 14 years of the 21st century.

They are communications.

They were framed by communications people.

The Ambassador is of course right. Sometimes we can be too hemmed in by process to think agile, creative, sharable and flexible.

To have such a green light from the top is a gift to cherish.

Sometimes the play book comes not from the institution or the old ways of doing things. It comes from unexpected quarters and what your enemy does.

It also poses the question that if communications is 90 per cent of the issue then are you doing enough? More importantly, have you got the support to do enough?

Spanish poet Baltasar Gracian said that a wise man gets more use from his enemies than a fool from his friends.

So, how can you learn from your enemies?

Picture credit

Magic bullet https://www.flickr.com/photos/45175402@N00/51470257/


SPACE LAB: We need to create time to experiment to survive

3105377322_82475318c6_oThere’s been a real drive for evidence based campaigns in the public sector just recently.

Government communicators have been asked not to do anything unless it’s based on data.

The argument goes that this cuts out the vanity campaign or the SOS – the Sending Out Stuff – that sees press releases and other things shovelled out the door because some action is better than nothing.

Don’t get me wrong, I can see real merit in having a get out of jail free card when faced with a senior request ‘for stuff.’

But I’m starting to think about if we need to create some space for experimentation. Things like Trojan mice. These are things that see you try something out low budget just to see if it works and you can learn from.

One example of this skunkwork lab is the excellent Torfaen Council Elvis gritter YouTube that’s been around for a while. If you haven’t seen it, it’s the low budget Elvis impersonator from the Valleys singing about how the council can’t be everywhere and not to panic buy bread. It’s brilliant.  It was done on a shoestring to make people smile, to tell them some important things and done entirely without research.

It works because it’s human and is entirely without strategy.

I was helping train a local government comms team last week when this clip came up and we showed it just to see the reaction. There was disbelief. Then laughter. Then real affection. It works. It just works. I rememberdiscussing it 12-months ag with someone who works for an authority who ruthlessly apply the research-led ROSIE logic.

“It’s really, really good and I love it,” she said. “But of couse we could never do it where I work.”

So how do you create the space needed to make the Trojan mice flourish?

Google famously give staff a day a week to work on their own projects. Some of those projects have become key to their future strategy.

Tectonic plates in the world of communications are shifting. The centre cannot hold. Different channels are emerging and with them the demand for new skills. If you want the evidence, more than 70 per cent in our survey four months ago said the job was getting harder.

So, the task facing the the comms leader is how to create some safe space to experiment.

And if you are a comms person in the trenches, how are you going to carve out some Google time for yourself to look after your future?

Creative commons credit 

Pencils http://www.flickr.com/photos/67958110@N00/3105377322/


GOVCOMMS: 7 things to bring local and central government comms people together

9422535872_8e4d08002a_bSo, how do local government and central government comms people work better together?

There was an event the other day in Whitehall which looked at this very topic which I would have loved to have got to. But I work in the West Midlands so that wasn’t going to happen.

It’s a good question and one that I’d given a lot of thought to just recently. Not just because the LGComms Future Leaders course I’d been involved with was asked just this question and asked to come up with a presentation.

One of the good things about being in the public sector is the ability to share ideas and approaches. This doesn’t happen in the private sector. As one person recently put it, they’ll tell you what they did but they’ll just leave out a vital piece of information so you can’t follow. It’s like handing over a car without the spark plugs.

So here are some things that should happen.

6 things to bring local and central government comms people together

1. Realise that each side isn’t the enemy. You’d be forgiven for thinking sometimes reading the Daily Mail that local government was to blame for the banking crisis, Northern Rock and the nationalisation of the banks. Just think what would have happened had local government mis-sold products. Step aside from the headlines and realise that there is more to bring  civil Service and local government comms people together. We both face the question ‘what does communications mean in 2014?’ for example.

2. Paid secondments both ways. A few years ago a secondment from local government into the civil service could have been do-able. Not now. There isn’t the spare capacity anymore in local government. But funded posts could help backfill and share the knowledge. Even better if they are French-exchange-style two way affairs. Better still if they involve co-operation on the same project.

3. Open up central government training to local government. The Goverment Communications Service (formerly the Government Communications Network) stages a range of good training opportunities. It would be great if this was open to local government too.

4. Open up local government seminars to central government. Places like LGComms put on some excellent sessions. The different perspective of a Whitehall comms person would be useful. Just as the comms person more used to dealing with the community would be a benefit to a central government person.

5. Encourage events like commscamp. In February last year more than 130 comms people from Whitehall and local government came together in a joint event for what must have been the first time. There were more than 400 on the waitlist when it was turned off.  The agenda was decided on the day by those who went. Anarchy? Not really. It worked beautifully. It was organised by people in central and local government in their own time. (Disclaimer: I’m biased as I helped co-organise commscamp.)

6. Realise that neither side is better. They’re just different. As government departments put more focus on stakeholder groups local government listens to residents more. At a time when the Foreign Office is putting more effort – rightly – into answering queries on Twitter there’s pr people in Staffordshire or Norfolk who could tell them a few things. They are two different skills. It made me realise that neither side is better. We’re just different.

7. We both work in the public sector and should be proud of that. Sure, the private sector does some good things. But we delivered the Olympics, we save lives, we keep the roads running, our children educated and a whole load of other things too. How much better is that than flogging toothpaste?

EDIT: GCS courses are also now available to local government people. That’s welcome.

Creative commons credit.

Big Ben http://www.flickr.com/photos/mahatsorri/9422535872/sizes/l/


POST RELEASE: Life After the Press Release Dies

LandscapeIt’s seven years since the ground-breaking post ‘Die! Press Release! Die! Die!’ was written.

Tom Foremski’s this-can’t-go-on wail reads as powerfully as a Martin Luther deconstruction of one of the central pillars of the public relations industry.

“I’ve been telling the PR industry for some time now that things cannot go along as they are,” Tom wrote, “business as usual while mainstream media goes to hell in a hand basket.”

There is no point, he says, in writing slabs of text in journalese, and sending them to journalists when the traditional newspaper industry is dying and the news landscape is undergoing a digital revolution whether it likes it or not, Tom argued.

He’s right. The future is the message being shaped as web content and as social media conversation that has to be two-way and authentic, fun and interesting. Public relations people, no, communications people need to realise this if they are to still be relevant.

But that’s not to say that the press release is dead overnight. It’ll be here but diminishing.

Twelve months ago at an LGComms event I pointed to Tom’s post in a presentation and explained why this was something people needed to know. For five years I’ve been pointing to rapid change from my very small corner of the digital allotment.

Other louder voices have seen what I’ve seen too.

Government director of communications Alex Aiken made a similar point although more forcefully in a speech to the PRCA conference reported by PR Week. 

Ashley Brown, Coca Cola’s global director for social media and digital communications, recently talked about the wish to end not just the press release but the corporate website too.

“For the first time ever, our PR teams are being asked to think beyond a press release or beyond a toolkit or beyond a launch package. They had to think: ‘Wow, what is a two-minute really high quality video that someone would really want to share with the friends?’”

“We’re finally breaking the last connections to the corporate website. I think the corporate website is over.  I think it’s dead. I think everyone needs to start thinking beyond it. How can you turn it into a media property and hopefully the age of press release pr is over as well.

“I’m on a mission. If there’s one thing I do it’s to kill the press release. We have a commitment to reduce the number of press releases by half by the end of this year. I want them gone entirely by 2015. That’s our goal.”

That’s fine for Coke. But how easy is it if you work somewhere else?

Actually, press release murder is a pretty tricky subject to raise amongst comms people. It’s akin to telling people the skills they’ve spent a career crafting are now not so important. It’s telling a room full of sailors to put down their 8301863218_bdbac61ef4_oreef knot and lore and learn how to service an outboard motor. PR people are often former journalists who have in any event spent years as juniors crafting the ability to write press releases. Every word is pored over and shaped by committee. That control gives power. To attack the use of the press release is to launch a personal attack on the career history of PR people.

In the UK, the Government Digital Service published a fascinating study - the half life of news – of more than 600 press releases on gov.uk that looked at the traffic they got. Many spike quickly then fade like digital chip paper.

But if the battle is to be won it’s probably not the revolutionary cry of ‘Die, press release!’ that will win in it. It’s not even a study of how effective the numbers are in getting a story across that will lead the victory, although that will be important. It’ll actually be you, me and the people you went to school with who vote with their feet and share the sharable content.

There is nothing so boring, I’ve heard it said, as the future of news debate amongst journalists because what they say will have no bearing whatsoever on what the outcome will be.

It’ll be things like Oreo’s mugging of the Superbowl with an image of a biscuit created on the spot and tweeted and Facebooked within minutes to take advantage of a powercut. It wasn’t the lavish TV ads that was talked about. It was the real time marketing team who made the sharable image and the 15,000 retweets and 20,000 likes it achieved.

Oreo-Expion-Screenshot

What’s real time marketing? It’s people making content that capitalises on real time events. Look it up. You’ll need to know it.

All this is why I’m finding communications utterly fascinating right now.

And you have to ask yourself the question, if you are not thinking of what post-press release life looks like now, what will you be doing in five years?

Creative commons credits

Sorry, no gas http://flic.kr/p/7vtFzZ

Coke http://flic.kr/p/dDBdGJ


COMMUNICATE BETTER: On putting the show on right here

8509492809_a9766a9e56_bIt’s like a line from a Sixties ‘B’ movie: “Hey everyone, let’s get a converted banana warehouse next to a canal in the West Midlands and put on an event! With no agenda! It’ll be a sell out!”

Which is pretty much what we did with Commscamp the first unconference for communicators in and around local and central government.

Held at The Bond Company, a lovely converted warehouse in Birmingham’s creative quarter of Digbeth, we drew people from all over the country. It’s 135-capacity we could have sold four times over.

More than 170,000 saw the tweets on the day, a tweetreach survey revealed, and more than 500 joined in the debate on Twitter. More watching the sessions which were livestreamed.

People left the day fired with ideas with connections having been made with the unconference format allowing debate to flow over the tea, coffee and cake.

What is an unconference? It’s attendees deciding what gets talked about and voting with their feet to choose the break-out sessions they want. Want to crack a problem? Pitch a session and help run it yourself.

A revolutionary approach? Not really. It’s based on the success of sister events like UK Govcamp, localgovcamp, librarycamp and Hyper WM with many of them being staged in the highly networked city of Birmingham.

Why has there  been such an explosion? Simple. A perfect storm of budget cuts, new technoplogu and people excited a little by the new and better things they can do with them.

A couple of years ago I talked to Home Office press officers.

“Why would I bother with a few thousand people on Twitter when the frontpage of the Sun gets read by two million?” one asked.

A few months later the riots struck and those organisations without a Twitter presence were hopelessly exposed.

I thought of that press officer when the streets burned.

But commscamp was far more than just geeks needing to understand how the web has changed.

It was also about the real human day-to-day problems of how not just to do better for less but how to do completely different for less too.

There was the central government comms person sharing in her session how they coped when their team was cut by two thirds almost overnight.

There was the local government officer talking about how comms people should be letting go of the reins and allowing frontline staff to use social media to tell their day-to-day story.

I’m biased, but people like Morgan Bowers, Walsall Council’s tweeting countryside ranger should be revered and held up as an example to every organisation. You can connect with people with a realtime picture of a newt. Morgan does.

There was the heated debate over the future of the press release. Some thought they had just as important a role as ever. Me? I’m not so sure. Not when you see what things like Torfaen Council’s excellent singing Elvis gritter YouTube can achieve with its 300,000 views. That’s just brilliant.

There was the local government press officer who button holed me with the words: “I just didn’t know comms people could help democracy” or the central government comms person almost drunk with the ideas and possibilities they’d breathed in the asking anyone who would listen how things like commscamp could be repeated.

But the simple answer is it can. With enthusiasm, some volunteers and a smidge of sponsorship you can run your own and it was heartening to hear how others were planning their own.

The fact that it was planned by three people – two local government people myself and Darren Caveney – along with the Cabinet Office’s brilliant dynamo Ann Kempster really shows the power of a good idea, drive and some free social media platforms. The helpers who helped on the day showed that too.

The real value of unconferences is not just the lessons learned on the day and there are plenty. But it’s the connections made and the experiences shared that will still be paying back in 12 months time.

There’s no question that local government and central government have got so much in common and can learn from one another. Fire and rescue people too. And NHS. And the voluntary sector. We need to work with each other more because we face the same problems.

But the golden thread that ran through everything was a determination to do things better by sharing ideas. That, people, is just a bit exciting.

A version of this appeared on The Guardian.


MUSTARD MAIL: 20 things to learn from #govd12

Okay, so here’s three things that may just help you fall off your seat a little bit. Or at least raise an eyebrow.

Boom! Email can be a bit sexy. Not shiny hipster Apple sexy but in an effective way of communicating with people kind of a way.

Boom! I’m seeing one of the key roles of public sector communications is to point people at more efficient ways of contacting them that’s going to make them happier and save the organisation a stack of money.

Boom! Somebody somewhere in a restaurant had a service so very bad they spelt out their complaint in mustard and ketchup.

Here’s 20 things I learned from the excellent Govdelivery Delivering Real Value to the Public Through Effective Use of Digital Communications 2012 event at the National Audit Office.

1. Bad customer service can be repaid in ketchup

Gerald Power from Trapeze used this rather fabulous slide that told a rather splendid story. Person or persons go into restaurant with wipe-clean tables. Nobody comes and talks to them for half an hour. They spell this out in condiments, take a picture, post it to the web and leave. It’s a perfect tomato-based illustration of where we are with customer service in the social web.

If people just ain’t happy they’ll tell their friends. In creative ways that will go viral.

2. Email is…. sexy?

Actually, bad email is always bad news. The sort that clogs the inbox. The cc to far. But cutting through the rubbish, email does have results as a comms channel. Clearly, govdelivery are keen to stress their product which helps government deliver opt-in targeted emails on request on a whole bunch of subjects. But actually, there’s some pretty good results. Thinking it through,  wouldn’t mind opting in as a parent for child-friendly events in the borough where I live. Or winter school closure updates.

3. Comms is essential

As one speaker said, the role of comms in delivering the changes needed in local government is central, fundamental and essential. That made me think a little.

Research by accountants PWC has worked out the cost of local government contact by residents to resolve a problem. For face-to-face it’s £10.53, for telephone it is £3.39, while post costs £12.10 and online just 8p.

One of the roles of comms teams is to help point people at the channel that’s most effective to help save money.

So point people at more efficient ways of talking to the council and you’ll earn your worth as a comms team. That’s just a bit important.

Here’s some other things from the event:

4. There are 650 UK gov services (bar the NHS) costing up to £9bn a year but 300 have no digital presence at all.

5. The new gov.uk domain has saved £36m savings pa by moving from directgov and businesslink.

6. There’s a government target to save up to £421m from #localgov by digitisation.

7. The UK gov could save up to £1.7bn by digitising more.

8. Investment in comms is critical for local government.

9. There’s no need for fancy emails. Simple, to the point and effective for MHRA audience.

10. The digital by default line for UK government isn’t just coming from digital people. It’s coming from the heart of civil service too.

11. There’s no universal best time for an email as each campaign is different.

12. Don’t automate social content. Re-shape it.

13. Only way to realise cashable benefits from digital is headcount reduction and estate rationalisation.

14. A quarter of UK adults and half of all teenagers with smartphones and 77 per cent have broadband.

15. Love @geraldpower‘s idea of avoiding digital ‘magical thinking’. Don’t copy for the sake of it. Think it through http://bit.ly/cOFmkl  #govd12

16. Look to put #digital in BIG areas. Not little. Digital wedding bookings will save pence. Go to where you spend most cash.

17. LGA estmates £67.8m spent by #localgov on print public notices.

18. Public notices are an anachronism in a digital age.

19. 76 per cent of #localgov in an LGIU survey want to publish public notices online only while just 4 per cent want print.

20. There’s a debate about public notices being a subsidy to the print media. There a report.

Creative commons credit:

Bike: Kamshots http://www.flickr.com/photos/kamshots/193501258/sizes/o/


OFF SPIN: Why Malcolm Tucker must die

As beautiful illicit guilty pleasures go watching BBC2′s The Thick Of It is not exactly an out-of-control gambling habit.

A satirical fly-on-the-wall Yes Minister for the 21st Century Civil Servants and politicians scheme, plot and manipulate obsessed by the whims of public opinion.

Chief amongst them is the figure of Malcolm Tucker. Like ‘Iago with a blackberry’  as The Spectator calls him in the programme itself, he is the government’s director of communications whose Machiavellian command of the dark arts of spin is direct drawn from the underworld. Nothing is too low.

“Congratulations on your first confirmed kill,” he chillingly writes on a card to a junior who ill in hospital goes along with his plot to unseat the Leader of the Opposition. Out of the box the card comes from drifts a helium baloon with a picture of the deposed Leader sellotaped to it. A perfect blend of malice and slapstick.

Watching the programme is also a secret vice of comms people to talk of the programme illicitly in hushed tones.

A few years ago the subject of The Thick Of It came up in a conversation I had with someone who had worked at the heart of government in the Civil Service. “On a good day it was nothing like it,” the individual said. “On a bad day it was actually a toned down documentary.”

Yet, part of me thinks people will look back in years to come and find that Malcolm Tucker is a bygone relic. Obsessed with newspaper headlines and able to cajole the Priesthood of journalists with bribes and threats.

Or maybe the government comms people of the future will be just as frenetic and just as twitchy about public opinion. It’s just that it’ll be the bloggers and the digital journalists they’ll be obsessed about.

The fourth series ended with Tucker disgraced, chased by a press pack from a police station after handing himself in to be arrested after he perjured himself at a public enquiry.

And Malcolm Tucker to use a very Malcom Tucker word is ‘is damaging’.

Why damaging?

Because he forms people’s warped idea of what a public sector comms person looks like. Which is why he needs to be brought down from grace. It’s why he needs to die. Under a bus. Outside Parliament. With a single bunch of flowers from his ma in Scotland. Leaving a stack of cracking YouTube clips as his legacy.

Comms, like journalism, is a broad church and across it finds all sorts of characters and practices. Yet there is nothing I find in what he does remotely similar to what I do working in an environment that encourages open access to social media and open data. Central government people may disagree.

But as Alastair Campbell, the man who did most to create the late 20th century idea of a spin doctor, said recently the landscape has changed: “You can’t dominate the news agenda now. The agenda is more chaotic but that’s a good thing.”


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